The Difference Between Flat and Complex Characters

Now that the Ducktales revival is about half-a-season old, I can say that, while it is good, it’s not quite as good as I had hoped it would be. Part of the problem is that they go for the joke far too often, preventing the characters from developing much weight and consequently from engaging us in their struggles. They don’t do this all the time, but often enough for it to detract from the show (e.g. a potentially intimidating mummy monster is defeated by folding it up in a giant burrito).

This especially applies to Launchpad. Now, I haven’t gotten around to revisiting the original show in a long time, so I can’t remember if he was portrayed as this stupid in that one, but whichever is the case, it definitely is to the show’s detriment. See, Launchpad isn’t only an idiot, he’s just an idiot. As in, that’s basically his entire character: genial moron. He’s completely incompetent at what he does (raising the question of why Scrooge hired him in the first place), more childlike than the children, and most of the time seems barely functional. Yes, he’s gets a laugh fairly often, but he’s a very flat character.

maxresdefault

Take a recent episode that focuses almost entirely on him; he’s afraid of losing his job if Scrooge decides to go with a robotically-driven car being marked by a business rival, so he challenges the machine to a race to see who will get the job. There is the potential for genuine character development. But, no; the whole thing becomes just another ‘Launchpad’s an idiot’ joke, with him filling up his windshield with reminder notes, crashing immediately, and trying to finish the rest of the race on different vehicles.

That’s what I mean by Launchpad is a flat, one-dimensional character: if you say “he’s a genial idiot,” you’ve basically described everything there is to know about him, and everything he does proceeds from this description.

Contrast this with a complex and three-dimensional character: Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony.

Pinkie_Pie_ID_S4E11

You could describe her as a lovable goofball, but that’s not all she is. For one thing, though she’s the source of much of show’s humor, she’s not just an idiot. Actually, she’s not an idiot at all; she’s shown to be very intelligent, just eccentric and happy to play the fool if she think’s it’ll get a laugh. But she can be thoughtful and perceptive, especially on matters that interest her (for instance, she’s the first one to notice something wrong with the way the ponies in Starlight’s village are smiling, since “I know smiles”). She puts in the time and works hard in pursuit of her goals, and is a recognized expert in her own subject of baking and throwing parties (By contrast, Launchpad doesn’t even understand the controls of his own plane and destroys it trying to figure out what a specific blinking light meant).

Pinkie’s also shown to have very clear motivations: her mission in life is to make others happy, and her whole being is directed to that end. However, this sometimes causes problems if the person she meets doesn’t share her tastes in fun, or if she misreads what they want, or if she’s too preoccupied with having fun herself to realize the other person isn’t sharing it. Thus she constantly has to work at balancing her own immediate desires with her more fundamental motives. Coupled with that is the fact that she does work very hard and can easily be hurt or depressed if it seems her efforts aren’t appreciated (e.g. there’s an episode where she finds out that Rainbow Dash has been secretly throwing out all the pies Pinkie’s made for her, which causes Pinkie to explode with anger at her).

So, Pinkie’s allowed to be very smart and very competent on her own ground, and she has clear, multilevel motivations. But what really makes her a well-developed character is that she has a full range of human emotions and reactions. She’s not sunny and optimistic, or even just funny all the time; she has moments where she gets honestly angry, frustrated, depressed, sad, and hurt. She experiences self-doubt, she makes mistakes and learns from them, she’s forced to recognize her own limitations and try to overcome them. She has a clear motivation that she has to balance against her immediate needs and desires. None of that applies to a character like Launchpad, whose role is only to make the audience laugh.

For instance, there’s an episode where Pinkie takes on a babysitting job, only to find herself overwhelmed. Then, midway through, Twilight shows up and offers to take over. Pinkie’s all but desperate to have her do so…until Twilight innocently comments that some ponies simply aren’t up for the responsibility of watching little kids. Pinkie then immediately turns her down, determined to prove that she is responsible. That’s a very real, very human progression: Pinkie finds herself overwhelmed and wants someone to bail her out, then realizes that bailing out would mean admitting that she’s just as irresponsible as everyone seems to think, so she determines to see the thing through no matter what.

You can’t picture the new version of Launchpad, or a similar character like Soos from Gravity Falls going through that kind of progression, or experiencing that blend of desperation, doubt, and hurt pride: of being stung by what others think of you even as you fear they might be right.

Or you have things like Pinkie genuinely trying and failing to like her sister’s new boyfriend, then working to figure out how to react to this, or her progression from suspecting Rainbow Dash’s friend Gilda of being a jerk, to suspecting herself of being overly possessive, or trying to figure out how best to help someone who insists they don’t want to be helped.

Basically, even though she’s comic relief, Pinkie Pie is convincingly a person, whereas Launchpad is just a vehicle for jokes. Pinkie’s character makes sense on its own terms and in relation to the others, and she’s perfectly capable of carrying a dramatic scene without breaking character (heck, Pinkie gets some of the strongest dramatic moments in the series). Despite her goofiness, her emotions and reactions are convincingly real, which means we feel them right along with her.

hqdefault

Launchpad’s presence is dictated by the writers (there’s really no reason for the other characters to keep him around) and he could never convincingly create drama because he’s too inconsequential. He’s so stupid and his reactions so overblown and ridiculous that his emotions don’t matter: we don’t ‘feel’ his pain because we never see him as anything but a source of humor.

That’s the difference between a one-dimensional and a three-dimensional character: Launchpad exists to be comic relief. He has very simple motivations, very simple reactions, and he predictably will always be used as a joke. Pinkie Pie, though a major source of comic relief, is an integral part of the cast with her own multilevel motivations, her own conflicts, and her own struggles. Launchpad is a tool for the writers; Pinkie is a person.

What’s Wrong with ‘Victoria’

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been watching Masterpiece’s Victoria. I really love the Victorian era as a historical period, so I ought to love this. But I don’t. It’s not…bad, but it’s not very good either. The actors are good and very well-cast in general, the characters are mostly fairly enjoyable (I especially like the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peale, and Diana Rigg as an ancient battleship of a duchess), and the relationship between Victoria and Albert is played up for all it’s worth. The sets and costumes are very nice to look at.

The trouble is the writing, for two reasons. First is that it’s pretty contrived and very melodramatic, as well as being kind of clunky and heavy-handed.

I previously wrote about the scene where Victoria and Albert, pre-marriage, find her dog, Dash in a snare and somehow it ends with him yelling at her regarding the poor, forgetting the dog entirely. That sort of thing happens fairly often. That’s what I mean by it being heavy handed: the transitions are not properly set up, the characters don’t always act believably to move from one scene to another, and the guiding hand of the writers is visible all-too often.

Or there are complications that show up out of nowhere and do nothing just to pad out the subplots for a little while longer, like the would-be romance between the chef and the dresser is briefly complicated when she finds out he’s been seen talking with another woman. Turns out she’s someone from America trying to hire him for a restaurant. This is wrapped up in two episodes in maybe five or ten minutes of screen time, we never find out just who the woman was, and we move on. It served absolutely no purpose except to drag things out a bit and a gin up a little extraneous drama.

Or characters are ignorant of things they ought to know about: when Victoria gives birth to her first child, in the middle of labor she notices a group of ministers standing outside her door and asks what they’re doing there (they’re ensuring against a substitution). She didn’t notice them at any point in the past few hours? No one thought to let her know about this practice at any point in the past nine months?

Then there are just moments that made my roll my eyes. When Victoria’s beloved dog dies, she walks in and finds his body in the middle of her bedroom. Was no one in charge of looking after him? Did no one check the room to make sure it was ready to receive the Queen? None of the servants had been in there recently? I may be wrong, and it may have happened like that, but…well, I’d lay long odds against it.

Also, the Queen’s household is oddly small: we’re told it measures in the hundreds, but we only ever see the same half-dozen or so servants hanging out in the kitchen.

The historical events are portrayed, but in a slapdash and generally simplified manner. The first assassination attempt is played up as her evil uncle possibly attempting to usurp the throne…which goes nowhere, as the show is constrained by the historical record that the man was just an obsessive lunatic. It plays up the melodrama as much as possible, but since it’s also trying to be somewhat historically accurate it can’t deliver much of a payoff.

So, the show is pretty clunkily written. But I don’t think I would mind that so much if it weren’t for the other problem, which is that it just feels off. The best way I can describe it is that the characters don’t act like Victorians so much as a modern person’s idea of Victorians.

There’s one episode, for instance, when Victoria comes home from opening parliament in her full regalia; mantel, sash, and so on. As she walks in, she drops the mantel casually to the floor, takes off her sash and tosses it aside, and so on. That’s something a modern person would do, but the Queen of England circa 1850 would never imagine doing this (again, none of her servants are on hand to take her very expensive and important regalia for her?).

Likewise there’s the fact that everyone we’re not supposed to like is extremely rude and condescending to Victoria. Now, I can buy that people and politicians of the time would be dubious about an 18-year-old girl ascending to the throne, and I can buy them muttering about her in private, but she’s still the Queen, not to mention that this was a time and situation in which manners were given very high priority: I do not believe that these men would speak to her like this. When Sir Charles Trevelyan is telling the Queen about the Irish situation, he makes a condescending comment about teaching her about it “when she’s finished with her nursery duties.” Again, he’s talking to the Queen of England; why would he make that kind of comment?

The reason is that we’re not supposed to like Trevelyan and having him talk down to our heroine is an easy shortcut to that (because his disregard for the starving Irish isn’t enough, I guess). But it doesn’t feel authentic; it’s the modern trope of the condescending Victorian male who casually talks down to the plucky heroine. This is a way for the writers to signal to us the viewers that, though we are in the Victorian era, we know that is was really a very bad time.

Now, I am perfectly aware that, by our standards, many men in the Victorian era had a very narrow attitude towards women in general. The expectations for what was proper for each sex were very firm, and though there was some flexibility, it came at the price of being conspicuous. Medical science made broad and unjustifiable statements about women’s mental capacity, emotional stability, and so on. In short, the attitudes of the day were not ours and in many cases were simply unjust and wrong.

However, this trope of men being casually rude and dismissive towards women in person rather than in theory (two very different things) is one that I find extremely annoying, as it doesn’t ring true for me. If nothing else, didn’t they have basic manners in the Victorian era?

The thing is, I don’t see this much in actual Victorian literature. Quite the reverse, actually: Victorian characters tend to go out of their way to be complimentary and polite towards women. Take Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance (published between 1852 and 1853). You have numerous female characters of all different personality types. There’s Esther, the heroine, who is quietly sensible, generous, and part way through is made the housekeeper for a large mansion because she is recognized as being intelligent and having very sound judgment. There’s Mrs. Jellyby, whose time is wholly taken up with arranging charities for children in Africa, leaving her family to fend for themselves. Her daughter, Caddy, befriends Esther, marries her dancing instructor, and sets about teaching herself different skills in order to be useful. Then there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, an officious busy-body who goes about doing ‘good works’ that annoy the poor without actually helping them.

This is just a small sample (it’s a Dickens book: there are tons of characters), but the point is the each of these female characters are very active, busy, and hard-working in their own way, no one tells them they need to stay in the kitchen or talks down to them for being women. They’ll tell them off for being foolish, annoying, or troublesome, but the kind of casual rudeness that is de-rigor in contemporary stories set in the Victorian era is, in my experience, all-but unknown in stories actually written in the Victorian era.

Now, let me be clear: I am not claiming this means it didn’t exist. Fiction is not real life, but fiction is a reflection of culture and values that were present in real life. It’s not a record what happened, but it is a record of what people were thinking about. That is why I like looking at fiction from different time periods: it is a more ‘inside view’ than reading historical accounts. The fact that I don’t see this sort of thing in Victorian fiction tells me that either it wasn’t particularly common or that people didn’t think of it much, meaning that it wasn’t taken as an insult (and if you’re going to say that’s because Dickens was a man, I don’t see this sort of thing in Jane Austen – pre-Victorian – or the Bronte sisters – though admittedly I haven’t read much of the latter). Take it for what it’s worth, but in all my Victorian and pre-Victorian reading (which I confess I haven’t done nearly as much of as I would like) I can recall this sneeringly dismissive attitude occurring only a handful of times…and always at the hands of people we’re supposed to dislike. Half they time, they’re women.

In short, I am not saying that this kind of dismissive attitude didn’t exist in the Victorian era. I am saying that, to the extent it did, it certainly was not expressed like this. That’s why this sort of casual rudeness feels very artificial to me, an imposition of modern views onto a pre-modern setting.

There are a lot of things like that in Victoria, from the Obligatory Gay Couple™ to Victoria complaining about post-birth purification and replying to someone referring to her new baby as a gift from God with “God had nothing to do with it.” These strike me as modern sensibilities foisted upon a distinctly pre-modern world, either because the writers weren’t able to project themselves into that mindset, didn’t wish to, or thought the audience wouldn’t go along with it. I find this extremely annoying because it seems unfair to the Victorians that they’re not simply allowed to be themselves and let the audience judge how we like them. Like many contemporary stories set in the past, the main point seems to be to make the modern world look good.

For a counter-example of this sort of thing, I recommend the 1995 Pride and Prejudice BBC adaptation, which was content just to let the story play out and allowed the characters to talk and act like people of their time and place (e.g. the only one really complaining of the entail was silly Mrs. Bennet, whom we’re not supposed to take seriously, rather than having Jane and Elizabeth lamenting the unfairness of it all). The 2009 adaptation of Emma did this as well: I suppose writers are a little wary of messing with Miss Austen.

Anyway, that’s my opinion of Victoria: not bad, but kind of shallow and artificial.

Establishing Morality

In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.

Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.

For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?

The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.

This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.

Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.

The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.

The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.

The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.

The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.

Multilevel Motivation:

Today I want to talk about a characterization trick I’m going to call multilevel motivation. This is where a character’s actions are driven by several different and often conflicting motives at the same time, creating a more psychologically complex and realistic storyline.

Let me explain with an easily understood, but very well done example: the episode What About Discord from My Little Pony.

Brief summary: Twilight emerges from a weekend alone to find that her friends have apparently had a fabulous time with the local trickster god, Discord, and are bubbling over with shared jokes and stories of their escapades. Twilight’s confused by this, since, except for Fluttershy and maybe Pinkie, none of her friends have ever gotten along well with Discord, as he’s kind of a jerk. She naturally suspects that something is up and sets about trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Now, let’s take this apart: Twilight tells her friends that her motive is to better understand their bonding experiences so that she can use that knowledge in her friendship studies. To that end, she has them go through the whole thing again with her watching so that she can figure out what they found so enjoyable. At the same time, she’s suspicious of Discord, since he seems to be acting slightly out of character and she knows he likes to cause trouble. So she wants to find out what he’s up to.

But there’s a third thing going on, which is simply that she regrets having missed the good times and is jealous that her friends now have these experiences and jokes that she can’t share in. This is the motive that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, even to herself, as it conflicts with her values and role as a princess, but which is the real driving force behind what she does in the story.

So, in summary, there is the motive she claims to have, the motive she thinks she has, and the motive she actually has. That creates an engaging internal conflict, as she wrestles with feelings she thinks she ought not to have, and instead of putting them aside she claims an alternative motivation that she feels could satisfy her actual needs without having to acknowledge the feelings she’s ashamed of. Since it’s still not one that would go down well with her friends, she works up a plausible alternative, which perhaps she wishes was the actual motive.

All this works in to make Twilight an interesting, three-dimensional character. It shows her struggling with natural, human feelings that conflict with her morals and role in society and trying to find a way to deal with it. She does so by telling herself that her real feelings are something different and more altruistic.

But that’s not all: there is a similar and parallel characterization going on with Discord, who also has a multilevel motivation. The end of the episode reveals that he specifically arranged for the others to not let Twilight know about their upcoming fun weekend, purposefully cutting her out of it.

He claims his motive was simply to let Twilight alone and not bother her. It’s not very convincing, and almost no one believes him. He then all-but says that his real motive was to teach Twilight a lesson about the need to face and acknowledge her less savory emotions (with the added nuance that this is a lesson Twilight legitimately needs to learn). That’s the motive he thinks he has, and perhaps actually does make up part of his actions. But, at the same time, the actual motive is simply that he likes making trouble and jerking Twilight around. Like with Twilight, this showcases Discord’s three-dimensional characterization: though now a good guy, he still has the habits and instincts he had as a villain, which keep bubbling out subconsciously. Thus, he still wants to torment and trick Twilight, but she’s supposed to be his friend and he is honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. This is his way of trying to have his cake and eat it: to still indulge in his favorite vices while telling himself that he’s actually trying to help her.

So, the episode sees Discord and Twilight wrestling with their respective flaws and dealing with them by trying to tell themselves that their real motives are something more honorable. Only their actual motives can’t help but shine through and their fake motives can’t bring the satisfaction they want, forcing them to confront the reality of their behavior (and just to make it more nuanced, Discord never actually acknowledges his true motives, leaving us the audience to discern them from his behavior and our knowledge of him). It’s a psychologically complex set up centered around two very interesting and engaging characters.

Discord_pops_in_with_his_own_throne_S5E22.png

You see how it works? The character have selfish, but understandable motives, ones that conflict with their own values, so they try to convince themselves their real motives are something quite different, while maintaining yet a third motive to the people around them in order to try to make the other two motives work out to the same conclusion. It brings their interior conflict into focus, further fills out their characterization, and creates some interesting character based drama.

 

 

A Writing Thought from ‘Victoria’

I’ve started watching ‘Victoria’ recently. It’s pretty good; very well acted, very well designed, so decent writing. It definitely gets overly melodramatic at times, not to mention on the nose, sometimes overdoes the sneering jerkiness of the ‘bad’ characters (I would be very surprised to find that the real King Leopold would actually talk down to Victoria in the way he does here), and it’s clearly trying hard to be the next ‘Downton Abbey,’ but the story of Queen Victoria and her reign is more than interesting enough to keep things going.

Now, I’m only about three or four episodes in, but there was an incident in the last episode I watched that stood out to me. Victoria and Albert (when she’s still trying to make up her mind if she wants to marry him) are walking on the grounds of Windsor when Victoria’s dog Dash gets caught in a snare. Albert takes charge and tends to the dog, which leads…somehow to him shouting at her about the state of the poor, during which the dog is pretty much completely forgotten.

This kind of encapsulates what I think is a problem with a lot of contemporary stories: they focus on the wrong thing. They’re always diverting from the really interesting stuff, like nobility, virtue, courage, and character and getting bogged down in a boring morass of ‘issues.’ But in fiction, even historical fiction, the important thing isn’t the larger issues in the world of the story, but the individual characters and how they react. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but they are the substance of the story. Now, the most interesting thing about this scene is not the plight of the poor in early Victorian London. As far as that goes…well, it’s not exactly a pressing issue for us the viewers at this point. It matters only insofar as it reflects upon Victoria, Albert, and the other characters.

So, we have a scene where Victoria’s beloved dog is injured and Albert takes charge to help. The focus of this scene needs to be on Albert’s actions and Victoria’s reactions to it; he is stepping up to help Victoria in something that has nothing to do with her status as Queen, but is vitally important to her as a person. This shows they are on the same wavelength, that she can rely on him to care for her as a woman and not just as a monarch. But then, out of nowhere, they suddenly turn it to an argument about social justice solely to gin up some patently artificial conflict, while the poor dog is literally forgotten.

Let me be clear: it’s perfectly acceptable to have Albert and Victoria clash over matters of the poor. But not in that scene or at that time. It doesn’t fit what’s going on, the reactions aren’t natural, and, frankly, it’s disappointing. To take a really quite interesting and emotionally on-point scene and turn it to boilerplate social justice talk is like reading a story with a really imaginative and creative opening paragraph that suddenly turns into a political essay. It isn’t interesting to hear another tired variation of how the rich girl doesn’t know how the other half lives; it is interesting to see the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth crying over her hurt dog and watch her princely paramour ripping the sleeve off of his shirt to bandage its leg. That’s got some dramatic meat to it, some romantic weight and encapsulates a lot into very little. In a word, it makes for a good story. Albert and Victoria shouting at each other about the underclass does not make for a good story.

So, my point is that, when telling stories, it’s the characters who are interesting; the larger surrounding issues are important only insofar as they reflect upon the characters. That, and you should know when and how to fit your de rigueur blow-up argument between the romantic leads into the story so that it neither feels forced nor leaves an injured puppy dog forgotten on the ground.

 

Brief Thoughts on Danny Phantom

dannyphantomtitle

Danny Phantom is one of those shows that I’d heard a lot of people praising, so recently I watched through it. The story is of a kid who gets ghost-like powers and uses them to fight ghost monsters, while trying to maintain his normal life. So, very similar to Spider-Man. That’s fine; I have no problem with standard set-ups, especially for superhero storylines, in fact I prefer them. Overall, though, I thought it was just okay: not bad, but not really all that good either. It’s frustrating, because I really wanted to like it more than I did, and I can see that the potential was there to make a really fantastic show instead of something rather standard (kind of like Frozen, now that I think about it).

Maybe I’m just spoiled from watching Phineas and Ferb, Milo Murphy, and My Little Pony one after the other, not to mention coming off of Spectacular Spider-ManAvatar the Last Airbender, and the whole DCAU. My standards for animated TV shows are really high right now. But, even so, I wasn’t all that impressed. The characters, with one or two exceptions, weren’t all that interesting or well-developed, the gags were pretty standard, and the plotting was kinda weak. The animation was pretty lame too; very standard Nickelodeon ‘sharp angles, ugly backgrounds, wonky movements.’

And there was some standard PC shibboleths, like the boilerplate feminism, environmentalism, goofy stupid father character, that kind of stuff (though the father at least got some good redeeming moments). One episode flat out made me angry: it was a really stupid, feminist anti-beauty-contest deal with dosage of anti-Medieval snobbery. I haven’t hated a cartoon episode that much in a long time.

That said, the show was pretty good overall; the set-up’s creative and the hero’s powers are very cool. There are some good relationships (especially between the hero and his love interest), and the main villain is great for the most part (he gets a really lame ending, though). I laughed a fair amount (I especially liked a character called ‘The Box Ghost’ who was so minor a threat that his wanted poster read “$2.50 or Best Offer”). There are some really good episodes. I really liked one two-parter featuring the hero’s evil future self. Basically, I’m not sorry I watched it, but I don’t think I would watch it again.

One of my biggest problem with it is that I think it could have been a LOT better if it had been less standard. Like, if they had a more original animation style, more development on the ghosts and the ghost world, made it a little spookier and more gothic, and took things a bit more seriously and didn’t go for the joke quite so often. I’m working on my MLP video review right now, and one of the things I mention is that that show takes itself fairly seriously, in that the characters all act like what they’re doing is important and that they really care about the outcome. There are a lot of jokes, but we always feel like there’s something at stake and that it really matters what happens (even when it’s something as simple as deciding who to take to a party, the fact that it’s clearly important to the characters keeps us engaged). Now, of course the characters on Danny Phantom care about what’s happening and they do get serious at times, but they go for the joke much too often, and a lot of the time it just feels like a lark.

Again, for a show about ghosts, there’s very little atmosphere to it. The haunted house that Phineas and Ferb made to scare Isabella felt more gothic than almost everything here. The colors are too stark, the lighting is too uniform, and the angles too sharp to create any kind of spooky feelings. Yeah, it’s for kids so you don’t want it too scary, but it should be at least atmospheric. There are some exceptions, like there’s an abandoned hospital in one episode that’s pretty good, and a decent Halloween-centered episode that had some good imagery, but for the most part the design wastes the premise. It’s a story about a kid who is half-ghost, whose best friend is a goth; this should be like Saturday-morning Tim Burton instead of just bland, normal cartoon superhero.

Speaking of which, there’s another thing, something I’ve noticed in a lot of stories, which is the self-styled ‘independent, individualist’ characters who are actually completely standard. So, a bit of a big deal is made about how ‘different’ the female lead is, when actually…she’s just a Goth. As a general rule, if your persona has its own subculture, it’s not a sign of your extreme individuality. Now, she’s not a bad character, and like I say I liked the relationship with her and the hero (the idea of a goth chick falling for a ghost is great, though they didn’t really play up that angle much), but the idea that she’s some kind of extreme individualist or drastically original character is just silly. I see that a lot in fiction (and in real life), where ‘daring and original’ generally means ‘might have been daring and original about fifty years ago.’ Like, one of the marks of her individuality is that she’s a vegetarian. Um…how shocking?

Now, compare this with a character like Melissa from Milo Murphy’s Law.

She actually is a very unique and individual character. She’s a stellar student who has “a tremendous portion of my self-esteem wrapped up in my grade point average,” but has such a strong personality that she’ll just tell people to give her money and they do it. She’s sarcastic and highly capable, but is completely unathletic, forgetful of everyday things, and is absolutely terrified of roller-coasters. Her stated career goal is ‘Journalist / Queen of the Universe,’ and she’s memorized the blood type of every US President. So, she’s at once a valedictorian in the making and a junior-high crime boss (though one of the heroes). But there’s not a big deal made of her being ‘different:’ actually, she’s the popular one of the group. You see, she doesn’t have to talk about being highly individual; she just is.

So, Danny Phantom was okay, but just okay. I really liked the premise and I think it could have been a great show with different art direction and stronger writing, but what we actually got is something just above average.

 

Writing Only Leads to More Writing

My goal at the moment is to write a sellable essay every day. Initially I was worried about whether I’d have enough material, but then I quickly discovered that essays are like bacteria: they multiply and divide exponentially!

So, I was working on a piece about Jimmy Stewart for CatholicMatch. While making my point, a phrase came to mind: “the gifts of manhood.” That naturally raised the question “well, what are those? Mightn’t people be interested in reading about that?” So, I marked that down as another essay. Before that I did a piece on the need to respect all art forms, which led to an idea about the difference between ‘higher and lower’ and ‘better and worse,’ which then led to an idea about equality and inequality. So, two possible essays right there!

I don’t buy the canard “war only breeds more war” (that would explain the endless Civil Wars that have rocked the US and the repeated wars with Japan and Germany after WWII), but it seems writing only breeds more writing.